Tennessee Lawmakers on Both Sides Support Adding Exemptions to Current Abortion Laws

Just after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, a federal court allowed Tennessee’s “Heartbeat Bill” to become law, making the state’s abortion law one of the strictest in the nation.

Some of the legislators who supported and voted for the bill and other abortion legislation have made statements indicating they will support new legislation to ease the burden on physicians and add exceptions for rape and incest.

A separate “trigger bill,” passed in 2020 by the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee statehouse, similarly limited access and created penalties for medical providers for providing what the legislation considers unnecessary abortions.

The so-called trigger bill, known as the Tennessee Human Life Protection Act, was triggered by the Supreme Court decision and kicked off a 30-day countdown once the decision was officially filed by the high court. It went into effect on Aug. 25.

The bill prohibits abortions in the state with exception of medical emergencies and makes it a Class C felony for a person to perform or attempt to perform an abortion. The law specified the felony would only be aimed at the provider, not the woman undergoing the abortion.

The bill also adds language to give physicians an affirmative defense instead of exceptions to the law. Affirmative defenses put the burden on the doctors instead of the state prosecutors to prove the suspect did not commit the crime they are accused of.

In this case, physicians must prove an abortion was performed to save the life of the pregnant patient or prevent serious harm to her. This is after charges are filed and they have been arrested, according to The Tennessean.

If their defense is not proven, they could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Lawmakers Seek Exceptions

Democrat lawmakers in Tennessee said after the trigger law went into effect, they planned on introducing several bills in the legislature to expand exemptions to the law, including rape and incest.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat, introduced a bill with those exceptions and called for additional exceptions for the pregnant woman’s mental health.

“This bill specifies that the offense of criminal abortion does not include an abortion that was necessary due to a medical emergency affecting the physical or mental health of the pregnant person or performed on a patient whose pregnancy was the result of rape or incest when the physician performing the abortion has verified the patient reported the offense to the appropriate law enforcement agency prior to the procedure,” text of his bill, filed Dec. 8, said.

Some lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, including Republicans who voted for the trigger law, have told media outlets they also plan to introduce legislation to add exceptions, though none had been filed at publication.

According to The Tennessean, the Republican caucus chair in the state senate, Sen. Ken Yager, “will sponsor a bill to add clear legal exceptions for doctors who are currently at risk of prosecution for performing any abortion, even one to save the life of a pregnant patient.”

The Epoch Times reached out to Yager’s office for more information on his reported plans. His Press Secretary, Molly Gormley, said via email the bill had not been filed yet as “the language of the bill is still being worked out.”

She did not respond to a follow-up requesting additional details as reported in The Tennessean before publication.

Epoch Times Photo
A 2019 image of Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton. (Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton said in an interview with Main Street Nashville clarification is needed on the law. He added he would support exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies threatening the life of the mother, according to the publication.

“I would support the three exceptions if it made it to the House floor,” he said.

Yager said adding some legal protections for physicians are “pro-life for the mother and pro-life for the unborn child.”

“Although well intended, the affirmative defense provision is not only overly burdensome for physicians, but it can prevent them from performing life-saving abortions for fear of litigation, which puts at risk the lives of pregnant women who require medically necessary abortions,” Yager said in a statement to The Tennessean.

Republican Senator Richard Briggs, a retired physician, has been vocal in his support for exceptions while remaining a pro-life legislator.

In August, he told a Knoxville NBC affiliate he doesn’t believe current law, which he supported, has enough exceptions, including for ectopic pregnancies that endanger the mother.

“An ectopic pregnancy cannot be carried to term. But if it ruptures, the life of the mother could be in jeopardy,” Briggs said. “The question is, do you have to wait until it ruptures to save her life?”

He also said in an interview with ProPublica he never realized the full implications of the bill when he voted for it.

“I never would have voted for the bill if I had appreciated what is there,” Briggs said. “I’m not an attorney, I didn’t know what affirmative defense was. I didn’t think there would be anything, anywhere, in the American jurisprudence system where a person could be [presumed] guilty and have to prove his innocence.”

His statements prompted anti-abortion groups in the state to condemn his position and revoke their support of him.

The Tennessee Legislature goes into session in January, where some of the reported bills will likely be proposed.

Chase Smith

Chase is an award-winning journalist. He covers Tennessee and other parts of the Southeast for The Epoch Times.

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